BLOOMINGTON — Several Illinois Wesleyan University physics majors were pulling all-nighters this summer — but they had a good excuse.
They were studying the stars. More precisely, they were making observations and calibrations using a new telescope in the Mark Evans Observatory on the Bloomington campus.
Their work enabled the observatory to be certified by the Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
Linda French, chairwoman and professor of physics, said the designation recognizes “we have achieved a certain amount of precision in our observation.” As a result, the observatory may be called upon to assist with certain projects and research done there will be more readily recognized.
The team working on the project consisted of junior Kayle Connour and senior Chelsea Davitt, both of Bloomington, and Daniel LaRocca of Palatine, who graduated in May. Their work was made possible through a grant from the National Science Foundation.
An important component of the grant is having students do research.
“Good fundamental science here may offer clues as to how Earth was formed,” she said. “It lays another brick in the wall of understanding.”
There are trade-offs to having an observatory in the middle of a city, particularly the light that makes it more difficult to see dim objects, French said. That’s why most major observatories are on mountain tops or similar places with clear, dark skies.
But French thinks having an observatory on campus makes it more accessible to the public and students.
“I really firmly believe, people who are going to be astronomers need to understand the details of actually going to the telescope,” she said.
LaRocca is working as the observatory manager and doing research on Comet ISON, a comet discovered about a year ago by the Russia-based International Scientific Optical Network. Some astronomers believe it could become particularly bright as it passes close to the sun around Thanksgiving.
“Often newer comets have a really brilliant tail,” French said. “But I’ve grown cautious about calling anything the ‘comet of the century.’”
LaRocca plans to continue observing and calculating what happens.
“It’s like a soap opera. You really want to know how it ends,” he said.
With the comet making its appearance about 4 in the morning and other night-time duties, LaRocca said, “I sleep during the day.”
But he was awake Tuesday afternoon, showing how the telescope worked, with its automated system for finding celestial objects or specific areas in the sky.
LaRocca intends to study astrophysics in graduate school. He has no plans to be an astronaut — “I’m not brave enough” — but, he said, “I want to make a difference.”
That could include discovering and tracking minor planets.
“There’s a lot to be said for finding comets and finding asteroids that could possibly hit us,” he said.